Pope Francis declared on Tuesday that women who have had abortions can confess and be forgiven by their local parish priests during the Catholic Church's "Year of Mercy."
The unprecedented announcement, published on the Vatican's website, allows a woman with a "contrite heart" to confess and be forgiven by her local parish priest for having an abortion. Previously, Catholic women who wanted to be forgiven by the church for having abortions would have to seek absolution from priests specially appointed by a bishop.
"The tragedy of abortion is experienced by some with a superficial awareness, as if not realizing the extreme harm that such an act entails. Many others, on the other hand, although experiencing this moment as a defeat, believe that they have no other option. I think in particular of all the women who have resorted to abortion. I am well aware of the pressure that has led them to this decision. I know that it is an existential and moral ordeal," Pope Francis wrote.
"For this reason too, I have decided, notwithstanding anything to the contrary, to concede to all priests for the Jubilee Year the discretion to absolve of the sin of abortion those who have procured it and who, with contrite heart, seek forgiveness for it," he added.
The Church's "Year of Mercy," or Jubilee, begins December 8 of this year and lasts until November 20, 2016.
Several Catholic pro-choice advocacy groups reacted to the announcement.
"What is significant here is that the pope, as a faith leader for millions, recognizes the need to talk about abortion, which one in three women will experience in her lifetime," wrote Jessica González-Rojas, executive director of the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health, in a statement. "[But] these statements perpetuate the notion that a person who has ended a pregnancy must be ashamed, and contributes to culturally pervasive and deeply harmful abortion stigma."
Rev. Harry Knox, president and CEO of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, agreed.
"Neither the pope nor any of us can fully understand a woman’s decision because we do not stand in her shoes. What a woman really needs from her clergy is someone ready and able to have deep pastoral conversations about her decision. The pope should equip his priests with the tools to listen to a woman’s story instead of offering occasional absolution," Knox wrote in a statement.
Pro-choice advocacy group Catholics for Choice praised Pope Francis for "practicing what he preaches" but also remained skeptical as to whether many women would seek absolution from the church.
"...Despite what Pope Francis has said, I do not believe that Catholic women will be queuing up to ask for forgiveness," O'Brien added. "A long time ago, Catholic women around the world worked out that they can make moral and ethical decisions about sexual and reproductive issues," wrote Jon O'Brien, president of Catholics for Choice, in a statement.
Pope Francis also wrote that the Jubilee provided an opportunity for "great amnesty" for incarcerated people who have "become conscious of the injustice they worked and sincerely wish to reenter society and make their honest contribution to it.
"May they all be touched in a tangible way by the mercy of the Father who wants to be close to those who have the greatest need of his forgiveness. They may obtain the Indulgence in the chapels of the prisons," the pontiff wrote.
The pope will visit the United States later this month, meeting with President Obama on September 23. He will then hold a multi-faith service at the September 11 World Trade Center memorial and address world leaders at the United Nations General Assembly on September 25.